Vegetables. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
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Han Kang's The Vegetarian: the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical

Comparable to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”, The Vegetarian ties social refusal to sexual protest.

The Vegetarian
Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 160pp, £12.99

Mr Cheong, a domestic bully and servile office worker in too-tight shoes, deliberately picked a wife who was “completely unremarkable in every way” until she became a vegetarian. Not a shocker, you’d think. “I knew that some people in other countries are strict vegetarians,” says Cheong’s boss. “Even here, you know, it does seem that attitudes are beginning to change.” But Yeong-hye’s decision slaughters the sacred cows of family and work. What is it about her gesture that causes inexplicable anger, or discomfort, in everyone she meets?

Han Kang’s slim trilogy of stories ties social to sexual protest. As Yeong-hye vegetates, her cheekbones become as “indecently prominent” as the nipples that she refuses to bra up. Her body excites violent desire in the male characters but she has lost interest in meat-eaters. She stops wearing elegant leather shoes or putting on make-up. Attraction is part of the mincing machine, as her sister’s existence as the overworked manager of a cosmetics store confirms, and Yeong-hye is no longer a willing cog.

Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, a struggling artist, takes over in the second story. He is shocked that “his brother-in-law seemed to consider it perfectly natural to discard his wife as though she were a broken watch or household appliance”. Like Yeong-hye, he is “searching for something quieter, deeper, more private”. Yeong-hye’s act provokes his lust but also his creativity as he tries to make her body into art. “Perhaps,” he thinks, “the only way out of this hell of desire would be to make those images into a reality.” But his art is too focused on satisfying his desires to transcend its subject: “Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body which said so much and yet was no more than itself.”

Han has said that The Vegetarian was “received as a story with extreme characters” in Korea. The reviewer John Self compared it to western “literature of disappearance and refusal”, from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”. I’d be more specific: western tales of dwindling and disappearing women stretch from the lives of the saints (try Rudolph M Bell’s Holy Anorexia) to Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and beyond. Then there are the women who metamorphose (from Ovid’s nymphs to the heroine of Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales), all those ladies-into-foxes, escaping the pressures of sex.

​The cover of The Vegetarian.

Han insists that there is no comparable tradition in Korean writing, though there is a history of fatalistic narratives in which protagonists of both sexes are vanquished by circumstance – a storyline that has proved unattractive to western publishers and is one of the reasons Korean books have rarely been translated. Han also mentions Buddhist narratives and points out that, for readers in the original language, references to the Korean war would leap out. Yet The Vegetarian refuses to provide easy solutions to the questions it poses. “Stop eating meat, and the world will devour you whole,” Cheong tells his wife. The dreams that prompt Yeong-hye’s act of refusal reflect not only a sick society but her repressed anger and the violence inherent in nature. The book ends with a view of trees by a roadside and it is an image without comfort.

We never hear much of the vegetarian’s own story. Yeong-hye works writing captions for speech bubbles and her hobby is reading. Nevertheless, she is “a woman of few words”. Cheong can only look into his wife’s eyes “in order to judge whether she might possibly have been trying to tell me something”. The book is less about the vegetarian than about her family. The narrative slides expertly from the first-person voice of Cheong’s story – the author’s tongue firmly in her cheek, balancing humour with controlled fury – through the third person of the next section, which focuses on the artist, to the final story, centred around Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. This section, written in the third person, mixes In-hye’s thoughts with family memories and with the author’s narrative voice, not only describing In-hye’s empathetic nature but demonstrating an alternative to the self-centred voices of the book’s male characters. If not redemptive, it offers some hope.

Elegantly translated into bone-spare English by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian is a book about the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical. Yet its message should not undermine Han’s achievement as a writer. Like its anti-protagonist, The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence.

Joanna Walsh is the fiction editor of 3:AM Magazine and the founder of the #readwomen campaign

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist